LUKE MEREDITH, AP Sports Writer
IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Iowa answered coach Fran McCaffery’s questions about its toughness with an inspired win at Illinois over the weekend.
Now there’s something even more important the Hawkeyes have to figure out.
Are they still good enough to push for the Big Ten title?
No. 17 Iowa (17-5, 6-3 Big Ten) hosts Ohio State (17-5, 4-5) on Tuesday and No. 10 Michigan (16-5, 8-1) on Saturday. It’s a huge chance for the Hawkeyes to pull away from the muddled middle of the Big Ten and stay within sight of league co-leaders Michigan and Michigan State
Iowa opened the week two games behind the Wolverines and Spartans, who’ve each beaten the Hawkeyes this season.
“If you look at who’s behind us and who’s in front of us, these are tough games that are coming up,” Iowa center Gabe Olaseni said.
McCaffery was none too pleased with his team after a 71-69 overtime home loss to the Spartans last week. Michigan State held off the Big Ten’s deepest team despite missing two starters, and McCaffery said afterward that his players were almost too “nice” to the Spartans.
There was nothing nice about what the Hawkeyes did to the Fighting Illini.
Iowa opened like a team with something to prove to its coach, racing ahead 34-13. Illinois then responded with furious rally and jumped ahead by as many as five points midway through the second half.
It was then that the Hawkeyes showed the toughness that was missing against Michigan State. Iowa closed the game on a 20-8 run and clinched its first win in Champaign in 15 years.
“It takes a mental focus and a will not to lose. You could tell everybody on our team had no intention of losing that game,” Iowa senior Devyn Marble said.
One of the biggest reasons Iowa was able to rally at Illinois was Olaseni.
Even though he isn’t starting, Olalseni has grown into one of Iowa’s most indispensable players.
Olaseni, a junior who has backed up sophomore Adam Woodbury all season, posted career highs with 15 points and 12 rebounds. He is now averaging 6.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.3 blocks a game — all career bests — despite averaging less than 16 minutes.
Olaseni is the more athletic of Iowa’s two centers, and his energy off the bench has been crucial for that second unit.
“The thing that is so gratifying to me is you look at a guy who has incredible work ethic, desire, desire to be coached. He just wants to get better, appreciates everything you do for him; arguably the most humble person I’ve ever coached, and just keeps trying to get better,” McCaffery said.
But before Olaseni and the Hawkeyes can focus on Michigan, they’ll have to deal with the enigmatic Buckeyes.
They’ve been as tough to figure out as anyone in the country.
But Iowa knows that Ohio State is still as dangerous as any team in the league.
The Hawkeyes got what they thought was their signature road win in Columbus on Jan. 12, beating then-No. 3 Ohio State 84-74. The Buckeyes then lost to Nebraska on the road and Penn State at home, but a 59-58 win at Wisconsin on Saturday helped halt their ugly slide.
Marble expects Ohio State to be extra motivated by its home loss to the Hawkeyes, and he said Monday the Buckeyes have some of the toughest competitors he’s ever seen.
Ohio State had also won eight in a row over Iowa before losing a few weeks back.
“If anything it adds a little more bounce to your step. You never want to lose at home and we’ve been particularly pretty good over our time here at Ohio State. Anytime you lose one here, it sits with you a little bit. But we know it’s going to be a different game,” Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft said. “They’re playing great basketball. They play differently at home, with the energy that they have going there. We have to go in with the right mindset.”
AP Sports Writer Rusty Miller in Columbus contributed to this report
__Follow Luke Meredith on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/LukeMeredithAP
(© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)